Switching Addictions in Recovery

For those who are in recovery from drug & alcohol addiction, the very act of overcoming their addiction is a watershed moment in their life. The physical and emotional struggle involved with detoxification and treatment as well as the act of maintaining sobriety in daily life is empowering. However, as is often heard around the tables of 12-step groups, addiction is “cunning, baffling, and powerful”. This can often be seen when recovering addicts engage in the phenomenon of switching addictions.

A Working Definition

Switching addictions—otherwise known as substitute addictions—occur when someone switches or substitutes one form of addiction for another. The underlying root problem in switching addictions is not the substance or activity in itself, but the behavior. For example, those who complete substance abuse treatment may find that smoking cigarette is a way to cope with the stress of everyday living and dealing with temptations and triggers. For others, it may be a focus on exercise, eating, or work and for others, it may be on new hobbies or pastimes.

Even if the focus is on something that is non-threatening there can be a fine line between healthy focus and obsession. Again, it gets back to the actual behaviors—substituting one activity or substance for another show that compulsive activity is still occurring. Engaging in those kinds of behaviors will tend to have negative consequences in some shape or form down the road.

What Happens When an Addict Takes Narcotic Medication?

A very common issue that appears to be one of the leading causes of relapse for someone in recovery is taking prescription drugs for “legitimate” reasons: anxiety, ADHD, or pain medications. The problem lies therein that these medications can be extremely helpful for people suffering from those issues. But, it has to be understood that by taking narcotic medication, even if it is legally prescribed by a physician, and taken as directed, can possibly trigger a relapse, no matter how much clean time one may have.

According to the online publication Psychology Today, “these medications stimulate the part of the brain that regulates addiction and addictive behavior.” Further explaining that “The dopamine dysregulation in the limbic system of the brain seen in addiction is not able to tell the difference between addictive drugs. Therefore, if someone who has an addiction is given another addictive drug for whatever reason, the individual with addiction is being set up for relapse into their drug of choice.”

Also, benzodiazepines, which are a class of drugs that are meant to relieve anxiety, such as Xanax and Ativan, are a common cross addiction for alcoholics. Physicians prescribe medication that is meant to relieve anxiety and relax muscles, which very well may do all of the above for the recovering person. But, unfortunately, benzodiazepines also “hit the same type of brain receptors as alcohol, the person is triggered into alcohol use.” So, it would make sense that someone who is self-medicating their anxiety disorder with alcohol would be triggered by a drug that is formulated to act on the same receptors and do the same thing, essentially.

Switching Addictions: a Common Thread

Some of the most common substitute addictions experienced by those in recovery can include the following:

  • Cigarettes
  • Marijuana
  • Prescription painkillers
  • Developing a co-dependent relationship
  • Sex Addiction
  • Gambling
  • Food Addiction & Eating Disorders
  • Being a workaholic
  • Cell Phone & Social Media Addiction
  • Caffeine Addiction
  • Obsession with exercise and fitness

Recognizing and Treating Substitute Addictions

In many cases, switching addictions can be just as serious as the original addiction. As stated earlier in the article the most important thing is to identify the root compulsive behaviors, address how they are impacting the lives of those who engage in them, and use the appropriate counseling and therapy options to correct them. Two common therapy options used include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychotherapy.

In addition to counseling and therapy, those in recovery need to find ways to achieve balance and understand the importance of awareness when behaviors and thoughts may become obsessive. The following are some tips for those in recovery to achieve balance:

  • Coming up with a daily plan—learning to balance work, play, and life requires tracking through a calendar or daily planner. Ideally, you should schedule adequate time between work and play and also have built-in “me time” that will allow you to recharge and refocus.
  • Being proactive—putting off obligations creates stagnation and stagnation can give rise to compulsive and obsessive thoughts. For those actions that don’t seem to work, take time to analyze where they went wrong and don’t simply leave them be.
  • “Turn off and Drop Out”—for a designated time daily, turn off your computer, Facebook, Twitter, and other devices and social media.
  • Sleep—having a consistent sleep schedule and allowing 7-8 hours of restful sleep nightly helps maximize brain functioning.
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